Speaking Other Languages Is Cool as Hell. Wanna Learn How?
Warning: Don’t click for “hacks” or “secrets.” I don’t know any.
I’m a polyglot. Multi-tongued.
In other words, I speak and read several languages. I don’t often write about that, because polyglots tend to annoy me. Especially the ones who talk about “picking up a language.”
Seriously? I’ve never ‘picked up’ a language in my life.
Even though I speak and read Russian, German, and French besides my native English, and even though I read a couple other languages, I am not particularly gifted at learning languages. I possess no special talents, and I’m not any smarter than most reasonably smart people.
I never planned to become a polyglot. It just happened.
I had to work at it! I started by studying Russian in my late teens because it sounded cool. Different. Edgy. You know teens and edgy! What I didn’t count on was falling in love with the Russian novels and poetry my studies exposed me to.
A whole new universe exploded to life in front of my eyes.
Language is so much more than words. Learning to speak a second language means learning culture and new ways of thinking and being. It means growing neural networks that flavor your every perception of the world. It almost means becoming inhabited by a doppelganger.
I quickly learned that I could not and must not understand Russian words as codes for English meaning. I had to experience Russian words in their own complex context and appreciate their variation and nuance outside of my native language frame of reference. I had to let RUSSIAN paint pictures in my head.
How did I learn to do that?
I studied Russian in school and later at a super-intense military language institute. I studied the way I was told, and I read the books I was assigned to read. I memorized vocabulary, did intense dialogue drills with teachers, and watched Russian films.
I can’t take any credit. I was lucky. I spent years studying at energy levels only a late adolescent or young adult will willingly expend. I ended up with a pretty cool job intercepting and transcribing Soviet military voice communications.
Then I never took another language class in my life!
I’ll finish my personal story in a minute, but before I do, I promised to show you HOW to study and learn a language effectively. Most people can do it, but most people underestimate the difficulty and the effort required.
Even people with life-altering motivation often have trouble. According to Stuart Anderson of The Cato Institute, adult immigrants to the US become proficient in English at very low rates, though their children and grandchildren speak English very well, and almost universally. Anderson finds that this holds true not only across populations, but over historical time frames. He found that 19th century German immigrants to Wisconsin learned English about as well as 21st century Hispanic immigrants to California.
Why? Learning a second language as an adult is crazy hard!
Learning a second language takes time and effort. I’m not saying this to discourage you. I’m saying it to psyche you up! If you want to learn a language, you probably can, but you have to be prepared to invest real time and serious enthusiasm.
You also have to be prepared to forget shortcuts. No school, no software package, no system of instruction can make up for learning time. Nothing can take the place of reading books, watching films, and having conversations with native speakers.
How to Learn a Language —
Regardless of your background or how good you might be with languages, you have to cover certain basics. Let me tell you my method. This is how I learned French and German. It worked for me, and I’m nobody special.
Step 1: Master simple grammar, vocabulary, and sounds
Learn the basic structure and grammar of the language. Taking a good class would make that easier. I didn’t, but I probably should have. Don’t take a silly, conversational class for tourists or business travelers. Don’t take a class that offers to make it easy. Ain’t no such thing. Take a good, hard class that will teach you all the basics, like a first-year college course.
If you don’t want to take a class, do it on your own. Use a book or an online course. That’s what I did. Find a textbook or online course that offers a basic overview. Get it all in — alphabet, sound system, how to put a sentence together, etc.
Don’t obsess; the details will come later. Just spend a few weeks or months learning the basics. If a particular concept bugs you or mystifies you, forget about it. You’ll have plenty of time later to worry about it.
Step 2: Start to read, and read a lot
Get real books in your target language. For this section, let’s assume it’s French, but it could be any language. Read about something you like. I prefer contemporary novels, because they usually contain current dialogue and ways of speaking. My first French novel was Charles le téméraire, by Yves Beauchemin. I plucked it off a friend’s shelf on a whim, because themes of Montreal history and Quebec’s Quiet Revolution appealed to me.
Dive in! Yes, it will be hard. Sit down with a bilingual dictionary or online access to one. Dig into that first sentence and figure out what it means.
Keep a vocabulary notebook. Write down every word or phrase you don’t know. This will be a lot at first, obviously.
Write in French on the left, including dictionary pronunciation. Learn how to use those international phonetic symbols. (They’re pretty easy if you’re sticking to one language.) Write in English on the right. Include alternative definitions for words with multiple meanings!
Shoot for about 25 new words a day. Or more. Memorize and quiz yourself every day. Make sure you quiz yourself in random order, from right to left and left to right.
Spend an hour or two a day reading and studying vocabulary. No less than that! If you put the time in, you should be able to read easily after about 6 months to a year. You will have an impressive vocabulary for a beginner, and if you’re like me, you’ll be roaring ahead, reading for pleasure in your new language when you aren’t reading for your notebook.
Step 3: Watch films and TV programs
Learning to hear is crucial! You’re not done with that notebook, though. In fact, the one notebook is probably already filled, and you’re on your way to filling more. You’re gonna need them!
Watching films in your target language will be very, very hard at first. If you can, buy DVDs that are optionally subtitled in your target language and in English. Find a player or software system that lets you easily rewind and loop, meaning that you select a segment to continuously play and rewind without your intervention.
Don’t use the subtitles unless you absolutely have to. If you must, turn on the subtitles in your target language. Use the English ones as a last resort.
Listen hard and keep at it, looping and looping each bit you can’t understand until you get it. Watch the film several times until you can understand every line of dialogue with ease. Fill that notebook with new words and phrases! Memorize them.
Again, work for an hour or two a day. For six months to a year. By the time you’re done, you should have watched several films, and gotten reasonably good at hearing your target language. This is crucial. The ability to hear is all about your brain. Neural networks. Only practice will make it happen.
Step 4: Talk to real people!
Actually, steps 3 and 4 can overlap, but after watching films for a while, you’ll be totally good to go having conversations with real live people who speak your target language.
Now you can really start to learn! If you’re like me, though, by this point you have a solid vocabulary and a decent ear. You may be pleasantly surprised by how easy and natural conversation can be. Oh, you’ll make funny mistakes, and you’ll learn a lot as you go, but with the basics down, the learning should be fun.
Pro tip: In person is better than online. Audio-only conversations are hard, because you lack visual cues like facial expressions and body language. Even online video is less than ideal. So, if possible, look up groups of people who get together and speak your target language.
One good resource is Meetup.com. I used it in Detroit to find a network of native French speakers who get together several times a month for coffee, drinks, and chatting. Along the way, I made some truly excellent friends.
Step 5: Keep it up and add music to the mix
How long did it take you to learn English? For most of us, 12 years is about how much time we needed to become literate and educated after we learned the basics as children.
Learning your target language to a level of educated proficiency may not take you that long, but the process is forever. Keep reading. Keep watching films. Keep meeting up with native speakers. Cook with them, go out on the town. Hell, have a romantic fling.
Listen to music. One of the coolest things I ever did was get obsessed with French pop music. First, it helped me learn to hear. I spent hours and hours decypering lyrics as I listened to my favorite music.
And I developed a whole new set of favorite singers! A whole world of French culture exists that I had zero access to without mastering the language. I have a new culture in my soul now. New ways of thinking and being and consuming art, books, films, and music — that simply cannot be experienced in English except in pale reflection.
Somebody asked me how to stay motivated learning a new language. For me, it’s that window into culture and art.
What are other ways to stay motivated? You have to have a passion. You have to really want it. You have to be totally blown away by how utterly freaking cool it is to think in another language.
When thoughts start to bubble up in your head in your target language instead of in English, you know you’re doing something that few people ever manage, unless they learned more than one language as children.
Learning a second language as an adult is hard, but you can do it!
- Master simple grammar, vocabulary, and sounds
- Start to read, and read a lot
- Watch films and TV programs
- Talk to real people
- Keep it up and add music to the mix